6.23.2014

Favorite Hidden Gem, Jacksonville: El Ranchito

When people ask me what's my favorite restaurant, it should come as no surprise that my answer includes not just one, but several places. Over the summer I'll be sharing some of these faves - new and old. I'll start with my FAVORITE HIDDEN GEM in Jacksonville, El Ranchito.

(This is excerpted from my original review, which appeared in the Florida Times-Union.)


Columbian, Mexican, Cuban all under one roof. GOAL!
I love a good “mom and pop” restaurant, someplace you feel welcome, regardless of whether you speak the language or hail from the same part of the globe. One that makes my list of favorites is El Ranchito. Cue the collective gasp from regulars who would prefer their favorite spot to remain their little secret.

Located on Beach Boulevard in Pablo Station near the northwest corner of Beach and San Pablo, El Ranchito hums with a Latin vibe. Columbian, 

Cuban and Mexican standards are all represented, and the crowd is as diverse as the menu. One day it is a bright, quiet spot to grab lunch or dinner, the next it’s filled with cheering fútbol fans, jostling for space with a stream of regulars, including more than a few in-the-know foodies. The space is small and neat, with minimal décor, indoor and outdoor seating. Banners advertising the World Cup festoon the small counter area.

Sopa de Costilla de Res
El Ranchito’s “mom and pop” for just over four years now are Ana and Jorge Argueta. She’s Columbian, he’s Guatamalan. Son Kenny and daughter Christina work with them, greeting customers as friends old and new, waiting and bussing tables. Kenny is quick to point out their Facebook page, and recommends checking it out for the specials.

On a recent visit, I particularly enjoyed the special Sopa de Costilla de Res ($4.99). Meaty chunks of beef short rib, tender and falling off the bone, nestled in with potatoes, carrots and cilantro in a flavorful broth which gets its reddish hue from achiote. This simple, yet satisfying Columbian dish is the epitome of comfort food. Here it is often available on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Empanadas Cubana
My dining companion and I shared crispy, warm Empanadas Cubana ($3.50), two fried flour turnovers amply filled with ground beef and Cuban spices. 

In contrast, Empanadas Columbiana (6 for $4.99, 12 for $9.99) feature a slightly sweet cornmeal shell and Columbian spiced beef.

Meat lovers and big eaters in general will embrace the combination of sirloin steak, pork sausage, chicharrones (pork rind), plantains, corn cake, white rice, beans, and avocado salad that make up Colombia’s national dish, Bandeja Paisa ($12.99). It’s a lot of food. Plan to share, or take home leftovers.

Tacos de Carne Asada
Tacos de Carne Asada ($9.99) hit all the right notes – perfectly seasoned chopped beefsteak, onion and cilantro are served on steamed corn tortillas, with a wedge of lime. This simple, authentic dish shares billing as “Traditional Mexican” with more American inventions such as the Chimichanga (9.99) and Fajitas (11.99-12.99).

The Cuban classics are here –succulent Lechon Asado ($7.99 lunch / $8.99 dinner) is fresh-roasted pork, seasoned with a slightly tart, garlicy mojo; and Ropa Vieja (8.99 lunch / $11.99 dinner), shredded flank steak prepared in a savory sauce of tomato, pepper, onion and garlic. Another Cuban standout is Arroz Con Pollo ($10.99), tender chunks of chicken cooked with yellow rice.

Camarones Al Ajillo
Camarones Al Ajillo ($14.99) are sweet, tender shrimp sautéed in toasted garlic oil, served with plantain, rice, beans and salad. The crispy little bits of garlic in the oil are what transform this simple sautéed shrimp dish. I sopped up every last bit with the yellow rice.

Soupy Columbian red beans were soft and silky, and not over-salted. Alternate choices are white rice and equally delicious Cuban black beans, and your choice of savory or sweet plantains.


Tres Leches
Desserts are made in house by Ana, and the Tres Leches ($4.00) is one of the best I’ve tasted. Suitably dense, moist vanilla cake soaks in the sweetened milks and whipped cream as you eat it. Overall it is light and fresh, not too heavy, and not cloyingly sweet as it can sometimes be.

El Ranchito serves beer and wine, coffee, tea, juices, soft drinks (including Columbian, Mexican and Cuban favorites) and Horchata, a traditional Mexican drink made with rice and cinnamon.

Give me a clean, locally owned, one of a kind place with simple food made from scratch and reasonably priced, and I’ll return again and again. I’ll be returning to El Ranchito.

El Ranchito on Urbanspoon

El Ranchito

14333- 22 Beach Blvd, Jacksonville, FL 32250
(904) 992-4607
www.facebook.com/elranchitojax

Hours:
    Mon-Thu 11:30-8
    Closed Tuesday
    Fri 11:30-9
    Sat 12-9
    Sun 12-8

Price range: $4-18

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